Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The song was born in 1931, the same year as my mother. It’s another gem in the enormous output of Harold Arlen (the lyrics are from Ted Koehler). Here’s Count Basie (vocal by Helen Humes):

The song pops into my head whenever I read about deep-sea mining. Norway, a country that has extracted billions of barrels of oil from its continental shelf, is interested in the other mineral wealth to be found there. And our northern neighbor Canada, no stranger to extractive industries, is also pursuing underwater mining.

It may all be too expensive to take seriously but it is an actual technological possibility. We aren’t talking about sending people to Mars or some other silliness. This is do-able stuff. They can send machines down to the seafloor to pick up polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel, and the lanthanides (rare earths). The nodules are brought to the surface and processed for their ores.

Most of the world is reacting in horror at such a possibility. There are number of countries and organizations that have spoken out against deep-sea mining. The environmental consequences, even under the strictest guidance, could be spectacular. So little is known about the oceans covering most of our planet. Disturbing habitats that we know almost nothing about would certainly be reckless especially considering our track record as a civilization. We have a knack for wiping things out.

If this kind of mining is confined to exploratory forays, and a few well-funded scientific outfits can get some real information from the work being done, then let’s go forward. But we’ve a long way to go before we can take the leap into deep-sea mining to meet the demands of EV manufacturers.

That means we’ll have to have more surface mines. And that we’ll also have to be much better about recycling and re-using our resources. We need some kind of incentive in our free market system that “closes the loop” on extractive practices and gets rid of the notion of “waste”.

Even if deep-sea mining is potentially orders of magnitude more productive than existing terrestrial practices it remains a deal with the devil. Far better for us to improve on what we already do. Innovation is sexy and gets the eye of VC-types but it doesn’t always provide the right solution.

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